It’s not unheard of for wealthy individuals to get involved in ballot measure fights. This year alone, grocery magnate Barney Gottstein put $100,000 toward a failed oil tax referendum, and financier Bob Gillam has spent more than $1 million supporting an initiative to slow the development of Pebble Mine.
But what is unusual is for a single person to sweep into legislative races and operate basically like a Super PAC would. Attorney Brad Keithley is doing just that, targeting a handful of Anchorage races.
Keithley is launching a $200,000 independent expenditure campaign to install his vision of a more fiscally responsible Legislature in Juneau. He’s hired a campaign manager, he’s done polling, and after collecting candidate surveys, he’s decided to get involved in four races. Keithley is supporting two Democratic challengers — Laurie Hummel against the incumbent Republican Gabrielle LeDoux in Muldoon, and Matt Moore against House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt in East Anchorage. In West Anchorage, he’s backing a Republican, Anand Dubey, against Democrat Matt Claman in a race for an open seat. And in Mountain View, he’s spending on behalf of Libertarian Cean Stevens, who is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr.
“These are districts where we think we can move the needle,” Keithley says, from the kitchen of his unfussy Anchorage condo.
So, why is he doing all this? For the past two years, Keithley’s been a regular at the state Capitol, preaching a gospel of budget caps. But while he thought his message of limiting state spending to $5 billion was resonating, the last state budget tapped $6 billion from the general fund and the one before took out over $7 billion.
“We went backward over the next two years. Rather than saving, we had the two highest deficits in Alaska’s history.”
To make up the difference, the Legislature and governor had to tap the state’s budget reserves, basically a $15 billion piggy bank the state can dip into when there’s shortfalls. Keithley thinks that instead of draining the reserves, Alaska should let the funds grow and then use the interest to counteract declining revenue from oil production — a plan crafted by retired University of Alaska economics professor Scott Goldsmith, which generated a lot of buzz in the Capitol when it was introduced.
Keithley says he thought there was buy-in for that plan from the Republican majorities when they listed “sustainable budgets” as a priority going into the legislative session two years ago. Based on the spending they did, Keithley doesn’t think they’re justified in using those terms now when running for reelection.
“They’re just saying words. After what happened in 2012, and after the Senate Majority coming out and making the statement it did, and after seeing the two largest deficits in Alaska history, they know what words constituents want to hear. They know what words resonate at voting time, and they’re just saying those words. They’re not living up to the words.”
Keithley has a few objectives with his independent expenditure campaign. Obviously, he’d like his chosen candidates to be successful. But he also wants to get people talking about the state budget. And he believes his spending could have an effect in other races.
On top of targeting four House districts, he also plans to send issue mailers in the Senate district represented by Republican Cathy Giessel and the open Senate district in West Anchorage where Democrat Clare Ross and Republican Mia Costello are squaring off. That means candidates Keithley considered targeting but didn’t find vulnerable enough – like Rep. Mike Hawker, who shares a district with Giessel and has been criticized for the expensive renovations of the Anchorage legislative information office – might still have to address fiscal issues in their campaign.
Keithley has been a vocal critic of incumbent Sean Parnell’s limited use of the line item veto during the past legislative cycle, except didn’t think $200,000 directed at that contest was enough to make a serious difference. By targeting high-turnout districts and doing web and radio advertising that could have a broader reach, he thinks there may be a ripple effect.
“The mailers certainly are going to identify, and the web advertising is going to say, ‘This is both the governor and the legislature that has been doing this.’ It’s both Alaska’s chief executive and its board of directors that is sending the state down this path. So, it may have some carryover effect in the governor’s race, and that’s certainly not going to bother me.”
Needless to say, the independent expenditure effort has ruffled feathers.
Keithley, who isn’t registered with a party but describes his views as libertarian, says he’s lost friends over it. Republicans have accused him of simply trying to elect Democrats. He’s been described as arrogant and dogmatic. People have questioned his attachment to the state – he’s been an Alaska resident since 2007 and uses a cell phone with a Georgia area code – and asked him who he thinks he is to be the arbiter of fiscal responsibility. He says people also wonder why he is putting $200,000 into political spending instead of toward philanthropy.
Keithley, who wouldn’t disclose his net worth but says he’s financially secure after a career as an oil and gas attorney, says he does give money to other causes. And he thinks his political spending may have more of an impact than giving to a specific charity.
“It creates a better world for that philanthropy and for that small segment, but it doesn’t improve the economy of the state or it doesn’t hand off a better world – a better state fiscal world – to the next generation.”
Keithley says he’s also prepared to be negatively compared to political spenders like the Koch brothers and George Soros, who are viewed as election-influencing boogeymen by the left and right respectively. Though, he sees himself more like billionaire Ross Perot, who self-financed a 1992 presidential run centered on reducing the national debt.
“You know, Ross Perot may have lost that election, but he changed the discussion. He changed the dynamic.”
Keithley even considered pulling a Ross Perot and running for governor. But after some self-reflection, he realized he “just wasn’t a good candidate” and did not have a shot at victory. So, he figured he may as well put money behind people who did have a chance. After all, he thought that was the fiscally responsible approach.